Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The right to food

Although man may not live by bread alone, he still needs food to survive. Food is a human birthright so essential to life that without it life is not possible.

Growing constitutional recognition

Ecuador, which straddles the equator and from which it takes its name, is one of only 15 countries in the world that explicitly recognizes the right to food in their constitution. The Constitution of Ecuador which was approved in a national referendum on September 28, 2008, contains several provisions on food, an inclusion that was promoted by the Food Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Article 13 of the Ecuadoran Constitution stipulates the right to food as the right to have unrestricted and permanent access to sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, for a healthy and dignified life. In short, it expressly recognizes and guarantees the right to food sovereignty. These provisions are in line with the latest developments in international human rights law, in particular, with the United Nations’ Right to Food Guidelines.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s fourth largest city, the city administration has declared healthy food a right of citizenship. “If someone can’t afford to buy food, they’re still a citizen and we’re still responsible for them,” a city official of Belo proclaimed. This beautiful concept, in fact, helped her lift her Workers’ Party to victory in the city’s municipal elections. Belo Horizonte’s innovations range from twenty-five fair-price produce stands supplied by local farmers to open-air restaurants serving 12,000 subsidized meals daily to city-sponsored radio broadcasts leading shoppers to the lowest-priced essentials.

The UN General Assembly Resolution

Last November 24, 2008, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the right to food by a vote of 180 in favour to 1 against. Guess who voted against the resolution?

In approving the resolution, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed that hunger constitutes an outrage and a violation of human dignity, requiring the adoption of urgent measures at the national, regional and international levels, for its elimination.

According to FAO, more than 6 million children die every year from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday, while the number of undernourished people had grown to about 923 million worldwide at a time when the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, or twice the world’s population.

Why then would the United States vote against the UN resolution on the right to food? Did the Bush administration (the dissenting vote happened under the watch of President George W. Bush) consider it tolerable that 6 million children die every day from lack of food? These are children who could easily be fed if the United States were not wasting its billions of dollars on its military arsenal so it could wage unjust wars and deter other nations, such as Iran and North Korea, from building nuclear weapons for themselves.

How much better an economic stimulus, both for America and the world would it be to mobilize American might for good instead of destruction?

The meaning of the right to food

The right to food implies that governments must not take actions that result in increasing levels of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. It also means that governments must protect people from the actions of others that might violate their right to food. The right to food is not about charity, but about ensuring that all people have the capacity to feed themselves in dignity.

To have access to food is a human right, and this is a binding obligation under international law, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under international law, the right to food is defined as “the right of every man, woman and child alone and in community with others to have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement in ways consistent with human dignity.”

But the shocking irony is that global hunger continues to grow year after year. Many of the women, men and children suffering from chronic undernourishment suffer from what the FAO calls “extreme hunger”. This means that their daily intake of calories is well below the minimum necessary for survival. Malnourishment also heightens vulnerability to other illnesses and almost always has serious physical and mental consequences.

The United States against the world

What is the basis for the U.S. resistance to a right to food?

We can trace the root of the U.S. opposition to the internal contradictions in the United Nations system. On one hand, UN agencies emphasize social justice and human rights. On the other hand, the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), which the U.S. government and the World Trade Organization that the U.S. dominates, oppose in their practice the right to food, emphasizing liberalization, deregulation and the compression of state budgets – which in many cases produce greater inequalities.

Until now, the United States has not ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Although President Carter signed the UN document, it has been rotting in the U.S. Senate which continues to refuse to ratify it. The United States takes the position that the right to food cannot be considered a human right which an individual can claim against the state, or where it generates individual entitlements and related state obligations that may be enforceable in national and international courts.

According to the Bush Administration, the issue of adequate food can only be viewed in the context of the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, the United States believes that the attainment of the right to an adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not create any international obligation or any domestic legal entitlement. The United States understands the right of access to food to mean the opportunity to secure food and not a guaranteed entitlement.

Making the “right to eat” an essential framework for fighting hunger scares the United States even more because it carries the presumption of an eventual mechanism for enforcement. Brazil, for example, has already started investigating what is called by its National Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Food, Water and Rural Land as “violations of the right to food.”

Other countries like India and South Africa are more active in the protection of social rights, such that when there is a violation of the human right to food, the courts assume a legitimate role in protecting that right. Recently, Nepal’s Supreme Court cited the right to food when it ordered help for needy rural areas. In other words, governments become obligated to do something about hunger by granting remedies to victims of violations of the right to food, which is the only way to hold governments accountable for being passive in the face of threats to the right to food or massive violations of the right to food.

The world has spoken

United Nations agencies along with, trade unions, environmentalists, farmers, fishermen, and nongovernmental (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) have argued that there will be no genuine progress in eliminating world hunger without a reversal of current polices and trends that emphasize trade liberalization – the greatest force undermining livelihoods around the world. They maintain that such policies have diluted the human right to food, enhanced neoliberal structural adjustment in the guise of HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) programs, emphasized biotechnology and genetic engineering, and failed to support strengthening of production by the poor themselves for local markets.

Many have criticized that the U.S. policy of promoting “free trade” and neoliberal reform through the IMF/World Bank has resulted in literally promoting starvation, and thus is responsible for the world food crisis. In manipulating food around the world, the IMF creates opportunities for transnational corporations to rake in huge profits. Haiti, for example, received tons of highly-subsidized cheap U.S. rice, but only in exchange for loans from the IMF. Unable to compete with the low prices, Haitian rice farmers went out of business and locally grown food shrank to a fraction of what it used to be.

The United States stands alone in opposing the resolution on the right to food as the United Nations continues to assert that the issue of hunger requires stronger grounding in the ethical and social justice implications that a rights-based approach provides.

Ban Kim-Moon, the UN Secretary-General has stressed the need to address other issues such as the exclusion and discrimination of the most vulnerable, the increasing uncontrolled power of transnational corporations over the food system, desertification, armed conflict and agrofuels.

“The sudden, ill-conceived rush to convert food, such as maize, wheat, sugar and palm oil into fuels is a recipe for disaster,” the Secretary-General warned. “In this rush, there are serious risks of creating competition between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water.”

As the rest of the world asks for a slice of good old American bread to feed the hungry, the Bush government balked. It seems that American policy-makers don’t have a problem if people starve, but then again, they have never been hungry a day in their life.

With a new kind of change in Washington D.C. right now, let’s hope that the Obama administration will be different and accept what the right to food means so that the poor and the hungry can be empowered to claim this human right.

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